Native Grapes: Tasting Two Assyrtikos From Greece

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Native Grapes: Tasting Two Assyrtikos From Greece

If you drink wine, you’re probably acquainted with the most well-known international varieties, like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Merlot. But many of the world’s greatest wine-growing regions also boast native varieties, which are often grown in limited quantities. In this series, we’ll expand our wine horizons and take a deeper look at some of the world’s most interesting native grapes.

You may know Santorini as the wildly popular Greek island destination that clutters your Instagram feed every summer, the whitewashed walls of the city set on the sparkling backdrop of the Aegean sea (and, depending on the season, throngs of posing tourists). But in the wine world, it’s known not only for its sipping suntanners but also its flagship grape: Assyrtiko.

Although Assyrtiko can be found in many of Greece’s wine regions, it’s native to the volcanic island of Santorini. Wines made from Assyrtiko in Santorini tend to be bright and acidic, but they have incredible range. The lightest of the bunch are dry, fresh and minerally, while sweet, aged versions made from dried grapes can take on nutty, caramelized aromas. Many of these wines are aged in stainless steel, which results in fresher, fruitier wines, but some are aged in oak, which yields toasty, vanilla flavors in the glass. Assyrtiko wines of all styles, but especially the sweet ones, can age for years in the bottle. Sometimes, Assyrtiko is blended with other native grapes like Aidani, which gives the wine more of a floral quality, and Athiri, which adds body.

Growing grapes on Santorini can be challenging due to the strong winds that blow across the landscape. The island is also technically a desert, which means that the vines see very little rain throughout the year—the majority of the moisture they get comes from fog. Because of these challenging conditions, vignerons on Santorini have had to find ways of protecting their grapes from the wind and ensuring they get enough water. Often, they’ll prune their vines into the shape of baskets, which are called kouloura. These small bundles of vines protect the grapes from the gusts and help trap moisture from the air.

But Santorini’s Assyrtiko vineyards are threatened by tourists that are starting to encroach on wine-growing territory. Anastasios Terzidis, marketing manager of Santo Wines, told Club Enologique that, “since the 1980s, Santorini has lost half its vineyards to wine tourism.” For those who want to ensure that future generations get the chance to enjoy Assyrtiko from Santorini, the preservation of these unique vineyards is important. Many advocates for the region are pushing for the island’s wine industry to be protected by UNESCO World Heritage status.

I tasted two wines from Santorini made from Assyrtiko.

Gai’a Thalassitis 2021

This unoaked Assyrtiko from Gai’a Wines is fresh, flinty and most of all, salty; it tastes like accidentally taking a gulp of seawater while you’re swimming in the ocean in the best possible way. Despite its freshness, this isn’t a simple, spritzy wine. It’s surprisingly complex and full-bodied, partially thanks to frequent bâttonage, which is the act of stirring the lees, or dead yeast cells, during the winemaking process.

Domaine Sigalas Santorini Barrel Assyrtiko 2012

Here we have a completely different style of Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas Santorini. This wine is aged in French oak barrels and also rests on the lees for six to eight months before bottling. It has that same clean minerality I’d expect from an Assyrtiko, but it’s tinged with a subtle and balanced nuttiness that lets you know this wine isn’t here to play.

Assyrtiko is relatively widely available, so visit your local wine shop if you want to try it for yourself.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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